Union with Christ in death and resurrection

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Letham concludes his fine book with a chapter that describes the eschatological entailments of the union of members of Christ’s church with himself.

Letham’s presentation

Though our current experience of union with Christ is wonderful, its gloriousness will only be fully manifested at his return when we are transformed into his likeness. Now we share in Christ’s sufferings. This form of suffering is different from that which all people experience because they live in a fallen world; our suffering with Christ comes upon us specifically because of our union with Christ. We have become enemies of the great adversary who will do all in his power to stifle our maturing in holiness. Those who still serve Satan will oppose us as they opposed Jesus, and some of us will be martyred for our faith as many of our fellow believers have been. Paul’s description of the ways in which he was “afflicted in every way,” in the course of his gospel ministry, is sobering (2 Cor 4:7-12). Our only road to glory, like our Lord’s, is through the cross (2 Tim 1:11-12). But the difficulty of these sufferings is ameliorated when we view them as the privilege Christ gives us of sharing in his suffering; the Spirit ministers to us as he did to Jesus, and what we suffer pales in comparison with the future glory that we can anticipate (Rom 8:18).

The union of new covenant with believers with Christ transforms our experience of death, giving us hope when we are dying and hope for loved ones who have died in Christ (1 Thess 4:13-17). We know that death will not destroy our union, for that guarantees our bodily resurrection at Christ’s return, and it ensures that we will be present with Christ in the interim between death and our coming with him when he returns. Christ rose as the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will share by virtue of our having died with him (1 Cor 15:12-19), so that our resurrected bodies will be of the same kind as his is now. In the meantime, we already “experience the resurrection life through the Holy Spirit” who indwells us (136).

Because Christ’s resurrection is “paradigmatic and definitive of ours,” it shapes the whole of salvation in union with Christ” (137). Christ “suffered the penalty of the broken law on our behalf,” and he was publicly vindicated by the Father who exalted him in his ascension. Consequently, we who are united to him are justified and raised with him to heavenly places (137). Similarly, Peter ties our regeneration to our participation in Christ’s resurrection. Through it, he entered into his new life according to the Spirit (1 Cor 15:42ff.), and because of our union with him we become a new creation in him (2 Cor 5:17), already seated with Christ in heavenly places even though we remain bodily on earth.

Vicariously, Jesus received a baptism of repentance from John, to fulfill all righteousness (Mt 3:13-15) in prospect of his bearing our sins on the cross, which Jesus viewed as another baptism (Lk 12:50). Paul describes our own baptism in terms of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-11), and he perceives our baptism in the Spirit as uniting us not only with Christ but also with all the other members of his body (1 Cor 12:12-13). Baptism is a work of God, in and through which the Spirit works, not automatically but through our “answering faith, which is “a gift of God given to his elect.” Letham thinks that Paul’s reference to our all drinking of one spirit may be a reference to the Lord’s Supper (139). “The earthly, material sacraments are God’s prescribed vehicles through which he communicates his mercies to us by the Holy Spirit through faith; that means union with Christ” (139).

The union with Christ which is effected by the Spirit here and now, in the lives of believers, is endless, and it will eventually entail our sharing “with Christ in governing the renewed heavens and earth” (Eph 1:3-10; 140). In union with the second Adam, into whose likeness we will have been transformed (2 Pet 1:4; 1 Jn 3:2),  we will fulfill the mandate God gave to the first Adam (140-41).

My reflections

This brief chapter is a wonderful conclusion to Letham’s treatment of our union with the crucified, risen and exalted Christ, and my primary response is to say a hearty “Amen.” In this chapter, as in the previous chapters, Letham has concisely unpacked the key biblical texts in a manner that I find very satisfying. He strikes a sobering note, however, at the end of this book, by making an evangelistic appeal and giving an important warning. This is not common in a work of academic theology, but it is a very good thing. One might easily assume that anyone who would read a book like this is living in union with Christ but wanting to understand that union better. Letham acknowledges the importance of “scholarship, theological discussion, [and] bibliographical information,” but he knows that these are not intrinsically saving. We are all wise to pause at the conclusion of this study, to ask whether the Spirit of God, in whom Christ baptizes us into his body, now testifies with our spirits that we are God’s children, and to yield ourselves to his ongoing work as the sometimes painful process of transformation into the likeness of Christ is continued.

Water Baptism

There was just one short section in this chapter, where I found Letham’s presentation biblically unpersuasive, the two pages under the heading “baptism” (138-39). Letham’s frequent citations of the “Westminster Confession of Faith” throughout this work testify to his Presbyterian perspective. Most of the time, I am in agreement with the WCF’s reading of Scripture, but it takes a very strange turn, I think, in affirming pedobaptism, and it is precisely in regard to the new covenant experience of union with Christ that this strangeness becomes most obvious. Letham is right to note the strong association Paul makes between baptism and union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-11; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 12:12-13), and he also recognizes that this is not because water baptism brings about union of  person with Christ and the benefits of his atoning work. The New Testament makes so close an association between new covenant blessings in Christ and baptism, that Douglas Moo posits that baptism “functions as shorthand for the conversion experience as a whole” (The Epistle of Romans, NICNT, 355). In Gal 3:26, 27, for instance, Paul ascribes our union with Christ to both faith (3:26) and baptism (3:27). Commenting on Romans 1:3-4, Moo observes that “just as faith is always assumed to lead to baptism, so baptism always assumes faith for its validity. In vv. 3-4, then, we can assume that baptism stands for the whole conversion-initiation experience, presupposing faith and the gift of the Spirit” (Romans, 366). So I take Stephen Wellum to be correct when he states that, because “Scripture links all the gracious benefits of the believer’s being united to Christ with water baptism, . . . we cannot conceive how the new covenant sign of baptism may be applied to anyone who does not have faith” (“Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants,” 160).

A great deal of ink has been spilt on this subject, and I won’t write another treatise here, but the New Testament teaching, that all the members of the new covenant community that is the church are in union with Christ and benefiting from his saving work, highlights a critical point of discontinuity between the nature of membership in the old and new covenant peoples. Because the Abrahamic covenant included both physical and spiritual blessings, membership in the covenant community was a very mixed phenomenon. Not all who bore the covenant sign of circumcision were circumcised of heart, and God’s instructions to the old covenant community assumed this. But the new covenant community is purely spiritual, not genealogical, and members of the visible body of Christ should be people whom Christ has baptized with his Spirit into union with himself. I grant that baptism is the sign of new covenant membership, but the important difference between the nature of the old and new covenant communities creates an important difference in regard to the subjects to whom the membership sign should be administered.

Baptism in/with the Spirit

Less importantly, I have doubts concerning Letham’s reading of 1 Cor 12:12-13. He discerns a sequence between being baptized in one Spirit into one body and being “made to drink of one Spirit,” which leads him to suggest a possible reference to the Lord’s Supper. I suggest that we do much better to read the text as a synonymous parallelism. To be baptized in one Spirit and to drink of one Spirit are the same thing; they are not different experiences in chronological sequence. The members of Christ’s body are those whom Christ has baptized with his Spirit, it is these to whom the sign of water baptism ought to be given, and these people should regularly celebrate the Lord’s death in communion, but our drinking of Christ’s blood on those occasions is not the drinking of the Spirit about which Paul wrote in 1 Cor 12:12-13.

In the context of this small disagreement, I do want to commend Letham for his translation of the text. I have been considerably disappointed that versions of the NIV right through to the 2011 version have all spoken of us as baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. I acknowledge that the translation is grammatically possible, but it is theologically problematic, and connotes an activity of the Holy Spirit which is nowhere else attested in Scripture. Knowing that Gordon Fee felt quite strongly about this, I was hopeful that when NIV2011 was in process, his persuasion would prevail. It was the first passage I looked at when the new version was available on line, and my disappointment with their perpetuating this theological anomaly has contributed to my continued general preference for the NRSV. Perhaps I give this one text too large a place, but I think that this portrayal of two distinct Spirit baptisms (in/with and by) has quite far reaching effects in one’s pneumatology.

Overall appreciation

The union of Christ’s new covenant people with himself is a glorious doctrine, and Letham has given us a splendid treatment of the subject, historically, exegetically and theologically. Into just 141 pages he has condensed much learning, and I found myself continually blessed as well as often instructed. I would not want our difference regarding the proper subjects to receive the sign of union with Christ as members of his new covenant people to be my last word. My overall response is much better captured by “Hallelujah.” The New Testament presents union with Christ as fundamental to our experience of all aspects of salvation, and Letham makes that point very clearly. His work in the eastern tradition is particularly helpful, and it is particular from Letham’s discussion of the ontology of union with Christ that I take an agenda item for further contemplation and possible change in my theological understanding.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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